But I’ve been a part of (or have witnessed) many efforts to help settle estates, and often it’s an exasperating process. People are grieving, and yet they’ve got to hunt through the mountains of accumulated papers to piece together a person’s financial life. Is this a mess you want to leave behind?
Perhaps you have a will. But have you maintained a straightforward filing system that would allow folks to find what they need to execute your wishes?
Would they know where you bank? Could they easily put their hands on your insurance documents to learn whether there is enough money to pay for your funeral and burial?
Where is your birth certificate? Did you serve in the military? Where is your discharge paperwork?
By decluttering and creating a filing system, you might even find some money. I did. I’m in the process of tidying up my office — again — and I’ve unearthed about $50 in cash and gift cards from a previous birthday.
After recently helping someone sort through his mother’s files just after she died, I’ve renewed my commitment to purge unneeded paperwork. I’ve got a lovely home office, but stepping over piles of paper is stressing me out.
As I was organizing and boxing up the many personal finance books I receive, I came across a new edition of “Homefile: Financial Planning Organizer,” by certified financial planners J. Michael Martin and his wife Mary E. Martin, who passed away in 2007. I first reviewed their filing system 15 years ago.
The Martins’ adult children (Sean and Kevin) have worked on keeping the “Homefile” organizer going in their mother’s honor. I’m recommending the latest version for the Color of Money Book Club for this month. It’s available only at homefile.net.
Of course, you can keep digital copies of your records, but you often still need originals of certain documents. When my mother passed away, we needed several original copies of her death certificate.
Included in the Martins’ simple system is a 48-page handbook with instructions on organizing your files. You also get hard-stock cards separated into 22 categories that you drop into a hanging folder (not included).
Here’s what I like about this particular system. The cards tell you exactly what to put into each folder so that you don’t have to guess what goes where. There’s also a section on each card that points out where similar documents should be filed.
For example, the tax card instructs you to include your federal and state tax returns and supporting documents. But your W-2 forms are placed in the employment folder. Each card also has a section with instructions of when to remove what you’ve filed.
How long should you keep your tax return?
There’s a note for that. Tax professionals generally recommend that you keep records for at least seven years.
The cards also include helpful reminders such as to not keep your original will in a safe-deposit box, which can be inaccessible upon your death. If the original is locked up, your heirs may need to go to court — at a cost — to get access to it. You should instead file it with your local jurisdiction’s Registrar of Wills or give it to your attorney or the person you’ve designated to be the personal representative for your estate.
“Homefile” helps you set up an archive system. Yes, some documents need to be kept indefinitely. But clear out the fat folder with insurance policies for cars you don’t even own anymore.
If you need a push to organize, here’s one — tax season. It’s a great time to tackle this task, because you’ve got all your paperwork out already.
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